Practicality and a storied performance pedigree don’t often go together; but the Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG and Subaru WRX are two models that offer an impressive amount of both.
Yet how these two cars get there is very different. The two aren’t so much sport sedans as four-door performance cars. Rather than putting the emphasis on balance of function and form, they’re both a little more deliberate—offering high-strung turbocharged engines, all-wheel drive, and some sophisticated chassis engineering to go with it all.
It’s actually worth starting here with the wild differences in price. The WRX starts at just about $29,000. Load a WRX Limited up with the navigation package (bringing keyless start, Harman Kardon audio, SiriusXM traffic info, and many expanded infotainment features, and the WRX nudges the mid thirties. A base CLA45 AMG, meanwhile, costs at least $50,000, and if you check just a few option boxes—because why not, if you’re buying an AMG model—the bottom line can easily blow past $60,000.
So why are we even comparing these two models? Because they have a surprising amount in common. They’re both quite compact and about the same length (181 inches for the WRX, 182 for the CLA45). And they both have 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbocharged engines. In the Subaru, there’s 268 horsepower flat four under the hood and 258 pound-feet of torque, adding up to 0-60 times in the low five-second range. The CLA45 AMG’s in-line four, on the other hand, makes 375 hp and 332 lb-ft, and it can get this car to 60 mph in just 4.5 seconds.
Gas mileage is actually a bit better in the CLA45 AMG, at 23 mpg city, 31 highway. In the WRX, the best they get is 20/27 mpg.
Get to exactly how these models lay their power to the pavement and you start finding a few more differences. The WRX comes with either a six-speed manual gearbox or an unusual, performance-tuned continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) that lets you manually click between eight ‘gears,’ while the CLA45 AMG gets a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic that’s an especially willing partner, eager to throttle-blip and rev match. All the right sounds are there in the CLA45 as well, and there’s even a Racestart feature to make you get your launch on as quickly as possible.
Handling between the two, and their general feel as they go down the road, is also quite different. The CLA45 AMG doesn’t exactly feel light, but it’s far more flingable than nearly anything else in the Mercedes-Benz lineup. With a beefy suspension and thick anti-roll bars, this is a car that stays flat and composed in corners, while understeer has been dialed out through the all-wheel drive, you get some feel of the road, and any torque steer has been quelled. The WRX on the other hand feels more like a lean and purposeful economical small car that’s been tuned and tweaked to go fast.
The latest WRX is hardly a sexy beast, but it exudes sturdy confidence and shows years of rally-racing influence. It’s a wide-body Impreza in appearance, with some strengthening of its core structure within, to help keep its handling precise at extremes. As for the CLA-Class and the CLA45 AMG in specific, it indeed a glimpse of the sexier, more curvaceous side of Mercedes-Benz that’s been showing in everything from the new C-Class to the S-Class. There’s a fair amount of front overhang to the design, but this is a form that looks good in profile from nearly all angles. The bigger wheels and aero effects you get with the AMG version really make this design ‘pop,’ too.
Inside, both of these models are compact sedans, but the Mercedes-Benz’s curvaceous roofline brings with it some serious sacrifices in practicality when it comes to back-seat space. Getting in and out of the CLA’s back seat isn’t easy for taller folks, and anyone much over six feet tall will likely be sorely missing headroom. The WRX is much more usable in back, relatively speaking. Both models have plenty of front-seat space, and the CLA45 AMG has especially supportive perches. Trunk space is decent in both, too.
If back-seat space is the CLA45 AMG’s big concession, the WRX’s is twofold: a cheap, plasticky set of interior trims and finishes, and a cabin that’s still too awash with road noise.
Safety-wise, the WRX is the winner between these two, but that’s simply because there’s more depth in its crash-test results. It’s been a top achiever in federal and IIHS crash tests, and with Subaru’s EyeSight suite of active-safety hardware becoming available in the WRX for 2016, it now gets the top IIHS Top Safety Pick+ accolade. The CLA45 AMG doesn’t have any crash-test ratings yet, but it does offer adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitors, lane-keeping assistance, and parking sensors with parking assist, and when you check the right option boxes it gets the IIHS “superior” nod for front crash avoidance.
Does that change your mind? Are you realistically considering these two models alongside each other? While any cross-shopping between the two is unlikely, we can see a lot of WRX drivers graduating to the CLA45 AMG and still being very happy.